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Why Write

September 14, 2012

Several weeks after I buried my father, I couldn’t get the sounds of his dying out of my ears. Perhaps if he had died peacefully, the sound of his voice, or his belly laugh, anything but his violent end from pancreatic cancer, would have filled my ears instead. But no, the last word I heard him utter before he slipped into a coma was an anguished “Why?” Hours later, his last hours, his breaths became enormous gasps, so strong that they lifted his body from the bed.

Since childhood, I have used writing to order a world that I love but that is sometimes hard to understand. A few weeks after my father died, I began to write his death. I wrote for days, without stopping, because back then I didn’t have children who needed me. I had only myself and time to sort it all out. I didn’t worry about the impact of my words on anyone, least of all my father, and not just because he was dead and could not protest. My father was one of my biggest fans. He may not have always understood the intricacies of my scholarly/writerly life, but his support was unwavering. He never questioned or criticized my choices. He would have honored my need to write and blessed the journey, as foreign as that journey must have been to him.

When I sat down to the story of his death, what I did not yet have was distance. Trying to make art out of life when you’re in the thick of life is a difficult endeavor. I’m not talking about writing in a journal or a diary, the writing you do for yourself and not for an audience. Art is about an audience, and when you write your life into art, you are writing primarily for others. Those others expect a certain level of fair and honest reflection, especially in essay writing, my genre of choice. They expect some perspective. I had to force an understanding on my father’s death when I was still struggling to make sense of it, when my grief was still so raw. Ultimately, I think the essay worked although it took no small effort to wrench it into shape. The editors of Fourth Genre, one of my favorite creative nonfiction journals, picked it up, and it later made its way into the “Notable Essays” section of The Best American Essays 2003.

Writing my adoption and reunion story has been far trickier than anything I’ve ever written. The people connected to my story are alive and well (thankfully!), and they have their own stories to tell, their own feelings to share, their own perspectives to offer. The parts of the story that each of them owns sometimes bump into the parts of the story that I own, and it requires a delicate dance. Early in the process, I inadvertently stepped on toes as I figured this out. Even now, as I continue to turn my life over in order to make art of it, people go tumbling about in the process, no matter how careful I try to be. What I write has hurt people, or angered them–and they’ve told me so. Their criticism–not of my writing but of the person I am behind the words–wounds me back. It’s a paralyzing, painful process.

In my lowest moments, I tell myself that I could stop this story. I could stop writing. It would surely save a lot of heartache. I’m not sure that it would ultimately repair any damage, or inspire any further growth, but it certainly would not cause any further distress to already fragile relationships.

But something compels me to keep going, and it’s not just my own sometimes inexplicable desire to make sense of my part of this story. I also believe that in writing my story, I might help others make sense of theirs, no matter if they have been affected by adoption or not.

My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was an honest man, a good man. He lived a simple life, a faithful life, a true life.

When I reach for this difficult story, when I begin to write again, his face is the one that appears before me. He died before the ending, before he could meet my birth parents and my birth brother and their extended family, before he could be a part of both the joy and the pain of the last few years. But he is still here, nodding in approval. He is telling me to write. He is telling me to keep going. He is telling me to be true. His hand is on my shoulder, that thick, tanned hand, rough from his hard work as a laborer, but gentle in its touch. When I close my eyes, I can almost feel it there.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen Sasse permalink
    September 15, 2012 7:14 pm

    Jenny, your Dad, whom both Al & I enjoyed and loved dearly, was a lot like our “Dad” (Al) is to our family. I can just hear such thoughts eminating from our daughter and three sons! He (Al & your Dad) were/are humble, supportive, non-judgmental,encouraging every step of their lives. We are so blessed to have been an integral part of their being! Feelings and personal thoughts are neither right or wrong, and I admire and thoroughly enjoy your sharing them with all of us. Jan, I completely share your feelings about your lock-box and what is “mine and theirs” to share.

  2. September 15, 2012 3:36 am

    Twinprint – Of course, this is a beautiful essay. And because of the mood I am in right now – remembering and appreciating my parents – I especially like how you describe your dad. But I so understand the problem with defining what is your life and what is others’ and how to reflect and write about your life without infringing on other people’s right to tell their own stories. I have lots of stories piled up about my children – now grown – that are kind of in a lock-box because I haven’t figured out what’s mine and what’s theirs. Thanks, I guess, for knowing this dilemma and being so eloquent about it.

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